A new Michigan State University study is reinforcing the thought that where you live can affect your health.
The study, now published in the journal Social Science & Medicine, looked at neighborhood characteristics such as proximity to food stores, parks, industrial areas, bus stops and community gardens, in order to determine which had more influence on residents’ healthy behaviors.
“The more we understand the way the built environment affects healthy behaviors, the more we can advocate for changes that will make these behaviors easier to carry out,” said lead author Rick Sadler, an assistant professor of public health and an urban geographer based in the College of Human Medicine's Flint campus. “Part of the goal is to reduce health disparities.”
To do that, Sadler surveyed academic and community leaders in Flint, asking them to assign weighted scores rating which of 29 neighborhood characteristics in six categories – including amenities, environment, greenspace, housing, infrastructure and social issues – they believe are most important in shaping residents’ health. He combined the results of that survey with data about Flint’s neighborhoods to develop a “healthfulness index” for each area.
“Very few studies – if any – have created an index like this,” Sadler said.
The higher the score for each of Flint’s 38 neighborhoods, the easier it may be for residents to engage in healthy behaviors, Sadler hypothesized, with the opposite being true of the low-scoring neighborhoods.
The results varied greatly, he found, with older neighborhoods in the city’s northeast and north central areas scoring the lowest, while those nearest the city’s colleges and cultural institutions scored the highest.
The academic and community leaders included in the survey were involved in either of two projects – the Church Challenge or the Strengthening Flint Families Program – created as part of the Flint Center for Health Equity Solutions to encourage healthy behaviors among Flint residents. Those surveyed agreed that neighborhood amenities such as churches, schools, doctors’ offices, pharmacies and food stores are collectively the most important factors of healthy behaviors. Social issues, such as crime and environmental factors, including polluted areas, also were significant, as were housing conditions, the survey found.
The healthfulness index and neighborhood maps “basically create a short-hand tool to help people understand where there’s a lot of need,” Sadler said, adding that he hopes it can help guide decisions by state and local government officials, particularly as Flint continues grappling with the health threats from the lead contamination of the city’s drinking water.
“In an ideal world, with a healthfulness index like this, there would be very few neighborhood differences,” Sadler said. “Everybody would have access to what they need to lead healthy lifestyles. Until that time, though, we can use data like this to target neighborhood-level interventions to make our communities healthier.”